For the Northeast striped bass surf angler, winter can be really long. The vast majority of striped bass have migrated either south to the Chesapeake Bay, or to off-shore locations. As a result, the ocean becomes devoid of stripers, and it seems that you’ll be stuck daydreaming about their return.
But for adventurous anglers, there are places in the Northeast where you can catch stripers even in the dead of winter. These stripers that stay in the northeast all winter long are referred to as “holdovers.” No one quite knows why some stay, while most go. And the population of these fish is relatively small compared to the total population of ocean-going stripers. But you might be surprised by how many remain behind each winter, and all the places you can find them.
Where to Fish for Holdover Stripers and What to Expect
The most consistent place to find holdovers is in tidal rivers, which can hold tens of thousands of stripers during the winter. The large rivers in Connecticut get a lot of press, but there are many others all over the Northeast, including those found as far north as mid-coast Maine. Targeting holdovers in smaller estuaries and salt ponds can also be very rewarding.
Catching holdovers in small bodies of water can be difficult though. Small bodies of water tend to have tiny populations of fish (or none at all) which are subject to disappearing virtually overnight. On the flip side, small ponds and estuaries are also easier to fish because once you find a spot that has fish, you don’t have as much water to prospect each trip. They also tend to have less pressure and you will often have them all to yourself.
No matter where you decide to fish, you need to accept that the action for winter stripers will likely be pretty slow, and the fish will generally be small. This isn’t to say you can’t catch 50-fish in an outing, or find multiple fish exceeding 20-pounds, because you definitely can—but these will be more the exceptional nights, not the average. The reality is that even once you find a good population of fish—which can take some hunting and exploring—they can switch off for long periods of time, ceasing to feed for days or weeks.
As a result, I adjust my expectations of what a good night is when compared to the rest of my striper season, and I don’t put in really long sessions. If I don’t get some action within 15-minutes of arriving at a good spot, I move. And if I don’t land a fish in a couple hours, I’m done for the night.
4 Ways to Find Holdover Stripers in the Winter
So if they’re relatively rare, and generally harder to catch, how do you land holdovers with any consistency? Along with investing time and effort into finding a good spot, I have four suggestions.
1) Find a Tackle Shop and Ask For Advice
Local tackle shops can help you find waters that are known for high numbers of holdovers all winter long. Start off by fishing these areas instead of places you hope they’re holding over. You’ll have the opportunity to catch some fish and get a handle on their behavior in the winter, before you set off to find your own secret spot. You might have to contend with other anglers, but it’ll teach you what to look for.
2) Find the Bait and You’ll Find Stripers
If you want to find your own holdover striper spots, I suggest seeking out tidal- or brackish-waters that are loaded with bait. I like places with big populations of over-wintering minnows and other species, or spots that get a lot of migrating herring and shad. This applies to well-known hot spots, too. Good spots can become great spots if you can pin down the highest concentrations of bait within a larger area.
3) Fish For Stripers When They’re Still Around
Target areas with lots of bait as early in the winter as possible. If you’re still catching stripers when the vast majority of the population has moved south, you may have just found a spot that will produce deeper into winter.
4) Focus On Deeper Water
Most productive locations have some deeper water, where the stripers can escape extremely cold temperatures. If you’re trying to find your own honey-hole, put deep-water locations on your list of places to check out.
When and How to Fish for Winter Stripers
Your best bet is to target estuaries early and late in the winter, but large tidal rivers fish well all winter long. Warmer, mild weather will bring the hottest holdover striper action, but fishing while the sun is up isn’t always the best—especially for shore-bound anglers.
Even during the coldest months of the year, I find the best time to fish is still after dark. Stripers move and hunt under the cover of darkness during the winter, much like they do during the rest of the season. I like to look for a string of two or more relatively warm days and then head out after dark. Just a few degrees can make a difference, especially late in the winter and into early spring.
Many anglers go deep in the water column to target holdovers, where the fish spend most of their time because the temperatures deep down remain steady. Jigs and soft plastics are great for this and are the most popular lures for catching winter stripers in general. It is worth noting that fish schooled up on the bottom are sometimes hard to catch, as they are sometimes just waiting out the winter and not feeding.
I find the fish moving around in the shallows are more willing to feed. Look for stripers that are hunting around edges, seeking places of increased current, and for spots with substantial structure. Use swimming plugs, small gliders, and weightless soft-plastics to target actively feeding fish. Slow retrieves with a lot of jerks and twitches work best for me.
Read Next: The 25 Best Striper Lures for Surf Fishing
The Best Tackle For Catching Stripers During the Winter
I use lighter action rods for holdovers than I would in the surf, but the rods I use are still relatively robust. I use either a 7- or 9-foot rod, both of which will throw between 1/2 and 3 ounces. I use 20- or 30-pound braid, and a 30- or 50-pound monofilament leader. While this may seem like overkill, I hooked a fish one early March night that I couldn’t turn, and it ultimately broke me off. It just goes to show that you can still catch big stripers outside of the regular season.